NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya left 72 civilians dead last year, a leading human rights group said Monday, accusing the military alliance of failing to acknowledge the deaths.
In a 76-page report, Human Rights Watch urged NATO to provide “prompt and suitable compensation” to families for the civilian deaths, injuries and loss of property.
HRW’s field investigation at the sites of eight NATO air strikes found that 20 women and 24 children were among the 72 people killed.
“To date, NATO has failed to acknowledge these casualties or to examine how and why they occurred,” the New York-based group said in the report.
HRW reported a higher death toll than an investigation conducted by Amnesty International, which said in March that 55 people, including 16 children and 14 women, were killed in strikes in Tripoli and the towns of Zliten, Majer, Sirte and Brega.
The NATO campaign, which was authorized by the United Nations, played a key role in helping rebels bring down dictator Muammar Qaddafi, but it left a deep rift in the U.N. Security Council
The decision by the United States and its NATO allies to launch an air campaign that mainly targeted regime forces and military infrastructure marked a turning point in Libya’s civil war, giving rebels a fighting chance. But Qaddafi’s government and allies in Russia and China criticized the alliance for going beyond its U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
The number of Libyans killed or injured in airstrikes also emerged as a key issue in the war as Qaddafi’s regime frequently exaggerated figures and NATO refused to comment on most claims, insisting all targets were military.
At one point, Libya’s Health Ministry said 856 civilians had been killed in NATO’s campaign, which began in March 2011, weeks after the uprising against Qaddafi that erupted with peaceful protests evolved into a civil war.
The U.N.-appointed International Commission of Inquiry on Libya said earlier this year that at least 60 civilians had been unintentionally killed and recommended further investigation.
HRW said it had documented several cases in which there clearly was no military target and criticized NATO for failing to acknowledge the deaths or to examine how and why they occurred.
In Brussels, NATO said it had carried out the bombing campaign with “unprecedented care and precision” and had fulfilled the requirements of international humanitarian law.
“NATO did everything possible to minimize risks to civilians, but in a complex military campaign, that risk can never be zero,” spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Monday. “We deeply regret any instance of civilian casualties for which NATO may have been responsible.”
She said the alliance had looked into each allegation of civilian casualties.
“We have reviewed all the information we hold as an organization and confirmed that the specific targets struck by NATO were legitimate military targets,” Lungescu said.
The alliance did not have troops on the ground during or after the conflict who could have independently checked the results of its airstrikes.
HRW recommended that NATO make public information about the intended military targets in cases where civilians were wounded or killed and provide “prompt and appropriate compensation” to families who suffered from the attacks.
Mohammed al-Gherari lost five family members, including a young niece and nephew, when NATO accidentally struck their compound in the Libyan capital as they slept.
Nearly a year later, his grief is compounded by threats and allegations from neighbors who believe he and others who survived the attack were harboring a regime loyalist or hiding weapons for Qaddafi’s forces.
The strike against al-Gherari’s compound on June 19, 2011, was a rare case in which the Brussels-based alliance admitted it had made a mistake. “It appears that one weapon did not strike the intended target and that there may have been a weapons system failure which may have caused a number of civilian casualties,” it said in a statement.
The Libyan government rushed a group of foreign journalists based in Tripoli to the site, eager to use the deaths as propaganda against the West. Children’s toys, teacups and dust-covered mattresses could be seen amid the rubble, and the journalists were shown the bodies of at least four people said to have been killed in the strike, including the two young children.
Al-Gherari said government officials disappeared shortly after the fanfare ended and the family received no compensation or financial assistance from either side. Meanwhile the NATO acknowledgment, which did not provide details, failed to satisfy neighbors who continued to accuse the family of harboring a regime figure.
“I want NATO to present a full explanation that the reason was a mistake because we’re still facing accusations that Qaddafi or a higher regime figure was there and that’s why our house was targeted,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He said five people were killed, including his 2-year-old nephew and a 7-month-old niece.
Human Rights Watch said it visited the site in the Souk el-Juma neighborhood in August and December and “did not see any evidence of military activity such as weapons, ammunition or communications equipment.” It also said satellite imagery showed no signs of military activity at the home.
The deadliest attack recorded by the rights group was in the rural village of Majer, south of the former rebel stronghold of Zlitan.
The first bomb hit a large, two-story house owned by Ali Hamid Gafez, a 61-year-old farmer. It was crowded with people who had fled the fighting in nearby areas. That was followed by three more bombs that killed 34 people killed, including many who had rushed to the site to help after the earlier explosions.
Human Rights Watch said it visited the area the day after the Aug. 8, 2011, strikes and found no evidence of military activity, although it did find one military-style shirt in the rubble.
“I’m wondering why they did this, why just our houses,” one of the residents, Muammar al-Jarud, was quoted as saying in the report. “We’d accept it if we had tanks or military vehicles around, but we were completely civilians and you can’t just hit civilians.”